The Passion of Christ according to Luke

This is the second of three Lenten Talks given by Fr Stuart.
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We will hear Luke’s account of the Passion this Palm Sunday.  While there are similarities between Mark, Matthew and Luke in their account, indicating that the latter two drew on Mark’s account, the synoptic Gospel with the greatest difference is Luke’s.  In fact, at points Luke’s theology and factual detail are closer to John’s gospel.

While in Mark and Matthew Christ’s abandonment, mockery and seeming failure are emphasised in order to highlight Christ’ identity as the suffering servant, a different facet is presented by Luke.

Like Mark’s Gospel, there is reference to Christ’s death at an early stage in Luke’s Gospel, though it is less direct.  In Luke 9:51 Jesus sets his face towards Jerusalem.  All his efforts are directed towards the cross. Half way through the Gospel Jesus reminds the disciples that no prophet should die outside Jerusalem (Lk 13:33).  Jesus sheds tears over Jerusalem, anticipating that many would “not recognise [their] opportunity [for salvation] when God offered it” (Lk 19:44).  A comparison between earlier passages in Luke will highlight the theme of innocence. 1 Jesus is accused by the chief priests and scribes of “perverting the nation” (Jerusalem Bible: inciting our people to revolt) and for bidding the people to pay tribute (tax) to Caesar. However, this same Jesus is introduced as a baby being brought to the Temple in total fidelity to the Law of Moses (Lk 2:22, 27, 39, 42), and he has just told the chief priests and scribes to “give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Lk 20:25). In Luke the theme of abandonment is diminished. While Mark highlights the failings of the disciples (slow to believe, quick to run away), with Jesus criticising them at points, in Luke there is no mention of the disciples fleeing in the Garden of Gethsemane. Moreover, Luke focuses upon the words of the forgiveness of the innocent Jesus, rather that his words of anguish.

The Passion of Christ according to Luke

The Garden

“But this is your hour; this is the reign of darkness. The notion of the hour of Christ is presented in John (Jn 12:23 Now the hour has come). However, the hour in question here is the hour of Satan. At the end of Jesus’ temptation in the desert Luke says that “the devil left him, to return at the appointed time.”  Now this is his time to attack the Son of God.  Thus, Luke states that “Satan entered Judas” (22:3), Satan will “sift” the disciples “like wheat” (22:31), and that the hour belongs to the “power of darkness” (22:53).

Luke avoids place names that would mean little to Greek readers, so he mentions the Mount of Olives, but not Gethsemane.  Jesus makes his way there “as usual”, so Judas knows where to lead the guards.  The disciples are reported as sleeping for sheer grief only once, not three times as in Mk and Mat.  The disciples are to pray not to be put to the test (cf. the Our Father).  In Mark Jesus is sorrowful unto death and throws himself on the ground. Here in Luke an angel comes to strengthen Jesus after he has knelt and prayed that the Father’s will be done. [In Mark’s account of the temptation in the wilderness, the angels minister to Jesus (Mk 1:13)]  Jesus sweats profusely in agonia – not anguish or agony, as sometimes translated, but agonia here means ‘struggle’ – his struggle with evil, his efforts to prepare to offer his life for us (agonia was used in Greek to refer to the sweaty tension of athletes before a race).

The trials – Sanhedrin, Pilate, Herod

As with the other Gospels, Peter denies Jesus, but in Luke there is a dramatic focus on the look between Jesus and Peter (22:61).  In the courtyard Jesus is abused as a false prophet, and yet this violence in preparation for his death proves that he is a prophet, as he had prophesied that he would die in Jerusalem.  Christ’s trial takes place in the morning. His answers are ambiguous and he shows great composure – “If I tell you, you will not believe me.” The chief priests find him guilty. Pilate finds him innocent. Herod can make no headway, but in sending him back to Pilate, he has declared him innocent, with no case to answer (23:14-15). (In the apocryphal Gospel of Peter, Herod becomes Jesus’ chief adversary, and it is he who crucifies him).

The Cross

In Luke it is Herod’s guards who put a cloak around Jesus and mock him, so the Roman soldiers’ mockery is highlighted at the foot of the cross (23:36-37). Christ’s words on the way to the cross are words of comfort (Daughters of Jerusalem …). Likewise on the cross he forgives his enemies and comforts the “good thief” (this should be the good criminal,, as there is no reference to what kind of crime he has committed).  Finally as Jesus dies, he confidently says, “Into your hands I commend my spirit”, adapted from Ps 31:5-6.  (The continuity of Christ’s mission in the Church is emphasised in the words of Stephen in his martyrdom.)  It is through Christ’s death that we have access to the paradise of God’s Kingdom.  (Paradise is a Persian word originally meaning walled garden). The soldiers who mocked now recognise Christ’s innocence – this man was righteous (weak translation in the Jerusalem Bible: a great and good man).

Comparative Studies

The Words of Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper

Mark (14:22) and Matthew (26:26) give the words spoken over the bread as “This is my body”. In Paul we find “This is my body which is for you” (1 Cor 11:24), and in Luke it is extended further to: “This is my body which is given for you” (22:19).  In Luke and Paul the instruction, “Do this in remembrance of me,” immediately follows.  This is absent in Mark and Matthew.  In Mark the words over the chalice are: “This is the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many” (14:24).  This is fuller in Matthew: “for many, for the forgiveness of sins” (26:28).  Over the chalice / cup, Paul states the words as “This chalice is the new covenant in my blood.  Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me” (1 Cor 11:25).  Mark and Matthew speak of the blood of the covenant, reminding the listener of Ex 24:8 and the sealing of the covenant in blood on Mount Sinai.  However, Paul and Luke speak of the new covenant, referring to Jeremiah 31:31, and the renewal of our relationship with God.  Mark and Matthew speak of Christ shedding his blood “for many”, while Paul and Luke speak of Christ pouring out his blood “for you”.  Clearly the latter shows the link with the community of disciples (and hence to members of the Church, by extension); the former reminds the listener of Isaiah 53:11-12,2 indicating that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah. 3 (The new English translation of the Mass is faithful to “pro multis” – “for many”.  This does not contradict Christ’s role of universal saviour, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.  Rather the repetition of the words from Isaiah emphasise that he is the Saviour.)

Jesus on the Cross

The first words of Jesus on the cross are “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).  Pope Benedict points out that this theme of not knowing is pursued in the Acts of the Apostles, in St Peter’s speech: “You killed the author of life… Now brethren, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did also your rulers” (Acts 3:15-17).  St Paul’s zealous attack on the first Christians is forgiven by God because he “acted ignorantly in unbelief” (1 Tim 1:13).  Pope Benedict says, “ignorance diminishes guilt, and it leaves open the path to conversion.  But it does not simply excuse, because at the same time it reveals a deadening of the heart that resists the call of Truth”4

Jesus is mocked on the cross.  In Mark 15:29-30, the passers-by refer to his words relating to the Temple: “Aha! So you would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days! Then save yourself: come down from the cross.”  The crowd here do not realise that the new Temple of Christ is being built before their eyes.  At his death, all three Synoptic Gospels tell of the veil of the Temple being torn from top to bottom.  This means that the “era of the old Temple and its sacrifices is over.  In place of symbols and rituals that point ahead to the future, the reality has now come, the crucified Jesus who reconciles us all with the Father.  At the same time, though, the tearing of the Temple veil means that the pathway to God is now open.”5 The crowd shouting “Save yourself.” makes us recall the temptation of Christ in the desert.  He remains faithful to the Father’s will.

The crowd unwittingly provide a commentary on who Jesus is.  He is the new Temple, the sacrifice that takes away our sins and forges a new covenant.  In Matthew, the chief priests and scribes provide the next part of who Christ is: the Son of God.  In keeping with Wisdom 2:18, they challenge him to come down from the cross, if he is truly the Son of God.6 “Without realizing it, the mockers thereby acknowledge that Jesus is truly the one of whom the Book of Wisdom speaks.  His situation of outward helplessness proves him to be the true Son of God.”7

At the beginning of his crucifixion, Jesus refuses the customary anaesthetizing drink, given to deaden the pain – he consciously suffers for us (Mk 15:23).  At the climax of the Passion, he says “I thirst” and is given the sour wine to drink.  (Jn 19:28).  This reminds us of the Psalm 69:21 – “for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” – a reference to show that he is the Messiah through accomplishing prophecy.  However, Isaiah 5:2 talks of God looking for grapes in his vineyard, “but it yielded wild / sour grapes”.  God thirsts for justice, love and for his people to live according to his ways.  In Christ’s cry, “I thirst”, God is calling to each one of us through the ages,  that our hearts may not be hard to him.8


1 Raymond Brown, A Crucified Christ in Holy week: essays on the Four Gospel Passion Narratives (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1986), 47.
2 “By his sufferings shall my servant justify many, taking their faults on himself.  Hence I will grant whole hordes for his tribute, he shall divide the spoil with the mighty, for surrendering himself to death and letting himself be taken for a sinner, while he was bearing the faults of many and praying all the time for sinners.”
3 Joseph Ratzinger / Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, vol 2: Holy week: from the Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection (London/San Francisco: CTS/Ignatius, 2011), 126-127.
4 Ibid., 208
5 Ibid., 209
6 Wisdom 2:18 – “If the virtuous man is God’s son, God will take his part and rescue him from the clutches of his enemies.  Let us test him with cruelty and with torture, and thus explore this gentleness of him and put his endurance to the proof.  Let us condemn him to a shemful death since he will be looked after – we have his word for it.”
7 Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth, vol 2, 210
8 Ibid., 218-219